Friday, January 3, 2020

I Knew They Didn't Fly!

Ruchel Dwojre (Jaffe) Brainin, Mendel Hertz Brainin,
and Benjamin Brainin, c. 1906, New York

I have been looking for the arrival of my great-great-grandmother Ruchel Dwojre (Jaffe) Brainin and her three youngest children to the United States for about 20 years.  This was the closest I had to a brick wall.  I don't count research questions as brick walls unless I have exhausted every single possibility, and I hadn't quite done that.  And that was the key to solving the problem.  This is a story of a lot of forgetting and dropped clues, but also of how things went wrong in the first place.

Ruchel Dwojre Jaffe was born about 1866–1871 in the Russian Empire (possibly in modern-day Latvia; she and other family members claimed to be from Kreuzburg [modern Krustpils], but I have no European records confirming that). She married Mendel Hertz Brainin about 1880–1884 in Russia and died November 9, 1934 in Manhattan, New York.

When she left Europe, I was pretty sure she would have been traveling with her three youngest children: Welwel/Velvel (William), born about 1891; Pesche (Bessie), born about 1892–1895; and Binyamin (Benjamin), born about 1896.  I was told their Jewish names by family members.  I knew those were the names I should be looking for on passenger lists.

The chain migration of the family began with the oldest son, Nachman, who arrived in New York on August 21, 1904 on a ship from Southampton, England.  Next were Chase Leah, Sora Leibe (my great-grandmother), and Dovid, who came on August 4, 1905 from Liverpool to New York.   Patriarch Mendel Hertz came April 5, 1906, also to New York, having departed from Bremen.

I knew that Ruchel Dwojre and the children were in the United States by 1910, because they were enumerated in the census in Manhattan with Mendel Hertz.

My beginning hypothesis was that they had come into New York, as did the previous family members, so I focused my searches there.  When discussing this once with my grandmother, however, she said that she remembered her grandmother saying something about coming into Watertown, which led me to research Boston records.   I later discovered that there is a Watertown, New York which was a border crossing, so I searched Canadian border crossing records.

I looked for Ruchel Dwojre and the children in the Ancestry New York passenger record collection; the Ellis Island database, using the Steve Morse interface; microfilmed Ellis Island index cards at the Family History Library; the Ancestry Boston passenger record collection; the Ancestry Canadian border crossing collection; and the FindMyPast outbound UK passenger list collection.  I searched using their Jewish names and looked under Brainin and Jaffe.  I found no one who even closely approximated them.

I looked for naturalization paperwork for the four.  I determined that my great-great-grandmother had not become a citizen at all.  Bessie became a citizen by marrying a man who naturalized as a citizen a year later, in 1915, so she had no file of her own.  I searched for Benjamin in multiple naturalization indices but didn't find his name.

The one person I had overlooked was William.  I simply forgot to check on him, probably because I knew he had died young.  This was brought to my attention when I was teaching an intro to genealogy class at the Sacramento Public Library.  I had chosen Willie's World War I draft registration as an example of a military-related document that one should search for, and as I was going through the information on the card, I read that it said he was naturalized, which I simply had not noticed before.  I stopped dead and stared at the screen, then turned to the attendees and told them this was a great example of why it's good to look over older documents that you've had a while, to see what you can glean from them now that you have more information or what you missed the first time.  After the class I made a note to myself about his naturalization, but as he had been in the Army I thought it was probably a fast-tracked military one and didn't pursue it at the time.

In 2013, my cousin Janis, Benjamin's granddaughter, surprised me with the revelation that her mother had just discovered Benny's "immigration papers", which said that he had sailed from Riga and named the ship and date.  When I finally received a copy of the document, it was a Declaration of Intention to become a citizen that Benny had filed on April 20, 1926.  On that, he stated that he had left Europe form Libau (not Riga) on the Coronia and had arrived in New York on September 15, 1906.   Woo hoo, I had something to look for!  Unfortunately, I did not find the ship arriving in New York on that date.  I searched the ship’s passenger lists for other dates in 1906 on Ancestry and through Steve Morse’s site, but not exhaustively, because it was tedious, eye-tiring work.

Eventually I broke down and paid USCIS for an index search for Benny's naturalization file, referencing the Declaration of Intention number.  I learned that all he had ever done was file the Declaration.  He never followed up on it and so did not actually become a U.S. citizen.  Because he did not file a petition to become a citizen, no Certificate of Arrival had ever been generated, and I was still stuck with not finding him and the other family members on a passenger list.

I sent my question to Avotaynu (twice!), for its "Ask the Experts" section, listing what I had done already in my search.  I didn't receive a response either time.  I even tried speaking with one of the experts at the Coaches Corner at RootsTech in 2019.  He couldn't come up with any avenues I had not explored, but in speaking with him I realized that I really needed to pursue Willie's naturalization, which I had not yet done, just so I could cross it off the list.

So I did.  I coughed up the requisite fee and sent another USCIS request, this one for Willie.  And then forgot about it.

This October I was looking through some old e-mail messages and realized I hadn't ever received a notice of results from the USCIS search.  So I sent an FOIA request and referenced my search request number.  About a week later I received a letter sayiing that USCIS had, in fact, actually found a naturalization file for William Brainin, who had become a citizen in New Bedford, Bristol County, Massachusetts on June 6, 1916.  The letter included a generous offer for me to pay an additional $65 for a copy of the file.  I made a mental note to follow up on that.  And then forgot about it.  (Hey, I have a lot on my mind!)

Two days after Christmas I was noodling around on my computer and found that letter again.  I was getting ready to head to the USCIS site to pony up the money when I realized I really should check to see whether FamilySearch might have digitized Bristol County naturalizations from that period.  Which it had.  After looking through some of the record sets and figuring out where the index pages showed up, I was able to find Willie's naturalization, which was in fact not a fast-tracked military one but a regular one, with a Declaration of Intention, a Petition . . . and a Certificate of Arrival, verifying that he had arrived in New York on the Caronia on October 3, 1906.

Oh, and by the way, his name on the passenger list was Wolf, not Welwel.


Well, forget that, let's find the passenger list!  I jumped onto Ancestry and searched for Wolf (sounds like) Broinen (sounds like) (the spelling indicated on the Certificate of Arrival), arriving in October 1906, in the New York passenger lists database.

And got "Your search for Wolf Broinen returned zero good matches."

Mumble grumble stupid Ancestry fiddle faddle foo . . . .


I went to the Steve Morse "Ellis Island Passengers Gold Form" and entered the same information:  Wolf (sounds like) Broinen (sounds like), arrived October 1906.  Steve's search immediately found one entry, Wolf Broinen, residence "Hangburg", age 17, arriving in 1906.  When I clicked on the "Manifest" link, however, I learned that the Ellis Island database no longer allows you to even look at the passenger list for free.  For the privilege of paying $29.99 you can receive something, probably an electronic file (it doesn't state what you get) of that page, without being able to confirm ahead of time that it's the correct one.

I don't think so.

The Ellis Island site had confirmed that the ship was the Caronia, arriving October 3, 1906 in New York.  So back to I went, this time searching for just the last name Broinen in October 1906 with no given name.  That brought me one result, Dwoire Broinen.  When I clicked on the link for that image, it brought me to a "Record of Detained Aliens" page, with Dwoire Broinen and four children as the first on the list.

This looked like it might be the right people!  They were met by husband "Mindel" on October 3, the same day the ship arrived.  Mindel is awfullly close to Mendel, and Dwoire is similar to Dwojre.  But I was expecting my great-great-grandmother to be traveling with three children, not four.

On the page it also indicated that the passengers were listed on group (page) 67 on lines 16–20.  So going back from page 227 in the database all the way to page 59, I finally found group 67.  And there, on lines 16–20 as promised, are:
Dwoire Broinen
Chase Broinen
Wolf Broinen
Pesse Broinen
Kosriel Broinen

whom Ancestry has indexed as:
Devorah Branen
Chose Branen
Coolf Branen
Pesse Branen
Koosel Branen

even though it's extremely clear that there is an "i" in Broinen and in Dwoire, and that there's no way that is two "o"s in Kosriel.  I'll give them Chose and Coolf; if you don't know what names they should be, I can see how those were misread.

And yes, that is my family! (doing the genealogy happy dance in the living room)

Okay, so where did I go wrong?  Why didn't I find them earlier?

I don't know why I didn't find them in the microfilmed Ellis Island index cards at the Family History Library.  I'm planning on looking at them again in February, when I'm in Salt Lake for RootsTech, to see if I can find the Broinen family now that I have the information.  But in the databases I searched, I can see some obvious problems.

I was looking for Dwojre, which is the spelling I was more famliar with and the one used by family members who gave me information.  Even though I routinely used "sounds like" and "similar" for matches, the "j" instead of the "i" would have thrown things off, because it's a consonant instead of a vowel.  I also looked for Ruchel, but that's not what she was called on the passenger list, so that clearly wouldn't find her.

I was looking for Pesche, again the spelling I am more familiar with and the one used by family.  Again, even using "sounds like" and "similar", having an additional consonant, the "h", will throw off the matching algorithms.

I was looking for Welwel/Velvel and Binyamin/Benjamin, not Wolf and Kosriel, which are totally different names.  I have never heard those names for my family members.  I asked Janis, Benny's granddaughter, if she had ever heard Kosriel for his Jewish name, and got a resounding "no."  We are at a total loss there.

And I never would have thought to look for Chase (pronounced "ha-suh", by the way, not like the English word "chase"), the oldest daughter in the family, Chase Leah, who went by Lena here in the United States.  I had not been told any stories that she went back to Europe at all, much less with her mother, presumably to help take care of the younger children when they came over.

On his Declaration of Intention, Benny had been close to the correct date, but the ship name was actually Caronia, not Coronia.  This probably would not have been a problem if there hadn't also been a ship named Coronia, although I still was looking for Binyamin/Benjamin, not Kosriel.

I had focused most of my searches on Benny, because he was the youngest person who would have been traveling with the group.  I have found that as people age you find more age variations in records, so I try to look for the younger individuals.  The given name being so different made those searches useless.

Another thing that would have thrown off my searches was the ages of Ruchel Dwojre and Willie.  I used the ages they later claimed here in the United States, but both are older on the passenger list.

I had tried searching with just a family name, but the number of results was overwhelming, because Brainin easily becomes Brennan, an extremely common name, with "sounds like" and "similar" searches.  That was another search like looking through all of the Coronia passenger lists:  too many pages, too tiring.  If I had persisted through all the Brennans, I might have found my family earlier.

And of course, the biggest problem was simply not following up on Willie earlier.  First I missed the clue from the draft registration, then I didn't immediately pursue it, and when I did I forgot to request the file.  So, lessons learned for the future.

And as I always used to joke, "I knew they didn't fly here!"


  1. Velvel means "wolf" in Yiddish so is a very common nickname. Mazal tov on finding them!

    1. Thank you! And thanks for mentioning that Velvel means Wolf. I know that, but I forgot to include it in the story.

  2. Congratulations on finding them. I recently found a long lost family in ship records, too, by searching on the youngest child. The mother came without her husband, and was listed by her maiden name--and so were all the children!

    1. Congratulations to you also! What ethnicity was the family? Was using the maiden name a routine tradition for them? Or had the couple not yet been formally married?

    2. They were Cornish. She was traveling with a man I have not identified yet. He could be a relative. The name was Nichols. Her maiden name Nicholas. The six children traveling with her from age 2 mos to 19, cinched it for me. The gentleman didn't match her siblings. Perhaps a cousin. He was three years older. I haven't found her husband though. He'll be harder to find by himself.

    3. Well, that's definitely different! I'm sure you will figure it out. Maybe he actually is a Nichols and they accidentally were listed under his name.

  3. It took a while, but a very nice & satisfying piece of research.

  4. I submitted this post to the June 2021 Genealogy Blog Party as a case study of "how I did it":

  5. Some impressive tips here. Years ago I decided I would only research my ancestors "back to the boat," since there was so little available online then. Now, perhaps the time has come to follow in your footsteps and take a second look for my immigrant ancestors records.

    1. I highly recommend it. I wish you the best of luck when you start looking for them.

  6. Your step-by-step thought process and how you followed up to obtain what you needed gives me inspiration for tackling my genealogy problems with fresh ideas. TY for going into such detail!

    1. Thank you, Marian! I can be a little obsessive, I know, but I'm glad it is helpful to you.

  7. Congratulations on your success. I used to love the Ellis Island site, until they broke what wasn't broken. MyHeritage has the New York immigration records with the passenger list coming up as the image. I just searched "Broinen, 1906, New York" and up came Wolf, Chose, Devoire, Kosriel, Dwoire and Pesse.

    1. I'm glad you have had success with the Ellis Island site. I have been disappointed in it since the beginning and only use it with the Steve Morse search page. I admit I had not looked at MyHeritage, because I find its search pages deplorable. It's possible that the Jewish names are spelled so well because it's an Israeli company, but I don't really know how its indexing is accomplished.


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